Stalins Prosecutor: the Life of Andrei Vyshinsky

By Vaksberg Arkadii, translated from Russian by Jan Butler, Grove Weidenfeld, NY, 1991, 374 pages(hardcover) 1

Review by Hans Sherrer

For Justice:Denied magazine

Tens of billions of people have lived during mankind’s history. So for one person to be identified as having a personal characteristic setting him or her apart from every other one of those many billions of people is worth noting. Some one person has been the tallest, the heaviest, the longest lived, the first four-minute miler, the wealthiest, or the most generous philanthropist. Many of those people are duly recorded in the Guinness Book of World Records.

Joseph Stalin is one of those people. Stalin stands alone as the most inhumane man in the history of mankind. Stalin is also one of only two men - Mao Tse-tung is the other - whose accomplishments in the destruction of innocent human beings exceed those of Adolf Hitler. In Death by Government, Stalin is credited with presiding over the Soviet government’s slaughter of nearly 43,000,000 innocent able-bodied Russian children, women and men, as well as people who were crippled, aged and infirm. 2 That is more than double the estimated 21,000,000 innocent people killed under the Nazi regime led by Adolf Hitler. It is also more than the 38,000,000 innocent people murdered by the Chinese government under Mao Tse-tung’s Communist leadership. 3

None of the 43 million innocent Russians murdered by the Soviet government under Stalin’s rule was a war combatant, and their deaths are solely attributable to the consequences of his domestic policies. Those tens of millions of people were murdered in many grotesque and almost unbelievably inhumane ways. Large numbers of people, e.g., died of starvation and/or dehydration after being herded into fenced pens where they were deprived of food and water. 4 The starving people ate anything, including “horse manure ... because it often contained whole grains of wheat,” and “cannabilism was widely practiced.” 5

The immensity of Stalin’s crimes against humanity are put in some perspective by considering that an average of 1.78 million innocent Russians were murdered every year he controlled the Soviet government. 6 That is the equivalent of systematically murdering every one of the 1.37 million men, women and children in the United States’ state and federal prisons, 7 plus all 417,000 residents of Atlanta, Georgia, 8 by marching them into barren fenced-in fields and depriving them of food and water. Then after refilling all those state and federal prisons and the city of Atlanta with people, to repeat that process the next year, and then again the next year, and then again the next year - on and on each year for a quarter of a century. Another way of visualizing the number of innocent people victimized under Stalin’s rule is that a book listing one victim’s name, age, address, etc., per line would be 1,040,780 pages in length - by far the longest book ever created. 9

The magnitude of Stalin’s carnage against innocent Russian citizens brings to mind an apt adage credited to him, “while every death is a tragedy, the death of a million is a mere statistic.” 10 It is with good reason that in 1939 the invading German armies were initially welcomed with open arms by Russians: They were desperate to be liberated from Stalin’s oppressive rule.

The nearly incomprehensible extent of Stalin’s inhumanity has been explained to underscore what may be two of the most disturbing aspect of his decades long orgy of spilling the blood of innocent people: They were the result of systematic domestic policies; and the circumstances of how those tens of millions of people died was considered legal under the law. Furthermore, in 1936 the Soviet Union adopted a constitution that provided protections for the Russians murdered by Stalin similar to those the U.S. Constitution provides for Americans today. 11

Although the cadre of henchmen Stalin relied on to carry out his policies are less well-known than Hitlers’, they were just as crucial to their effective implementation. One of Stalin‘s key toadies was Andrei Vyshinsky.

Stalin’s Prosecutor is a biography of Vyshinsky, whose career as a Soviet official spanned from 1917’s October Revolution to a year after Stalin’s 1953 death. The title is derived from Stalin’s assignment of Vyshinsky as the chief prosecutor for what are known as the Moscow “show trials” of 1936-1938, after he had worked at important but publicly low-visibility jobs in the Soviet bureaucracy for almost two decades. 12 Those courtroom proceedings involved dozens of top government officials accused of “anti-Soviet activities” under Russian Criminal Code Article 58. 13 They were considered “show trials” because the defendants had been tortured or intimidated into confessing their guilt. So the only reason for the “trials” was to send a clear message from Stalin to any potential enemies that questioning his authority wouldn’t be tolerated. Vyshinsky knew the defendants were innocent, and had been selected because they were existing or potentially dangerous political opponents to Stalin’s ironclad rule.

The Moscow “trials” were public spectacles reported on by journalists and broadcasters from the West, and observed by representatives of foreign governments and various organizations. With the outcomes preordained, one of Vyshinsky’s tasks was to ensure that it appeared to the foreigners in the courtroom’s gallery that the people on trial were guilty and deserved their sentence, which was often death. Vyshinsky was at ease doing that because he was a master at using innuendo and false characterizations to make an innocent person appear to be guilty merely on the basis of their “confession” - without presenting any evidence substantiating their guilt. Vyshinsky’s deviousness is underscored by the pressuring of some defendants to confess with a promise of leniency - which was forgotten as soon as the hapless person was beyond the protective gaze of the foreigners in the courtroom.

The face of a murderer of the innocent in a three-piece suit: Academic, diplomat, lawyer and prosecutor Andrei Vyshinsky.

A grisly fate awaited those who attempted to intercede on behalf of a friend or relative. One party official’s experience is a representative example. In a letter to a court official he explained why his niece had been unjustly convicted and sentenced to nine years in prison and confiscation of her belongings. After explaining that his niece’s conviction was based on “slander,” he was unusually bold by writing, “I suggest that the slanderers’ guilt is not so great if the court takes heed of slander so willingly and pronounces judgement by it. It is the unjust judges and [prosecutors] who passed such judgements who ought to be held much more responsible.” 14 The concerned relative/official was subsequently “identified” as a spy and executed. 15

News reports and comments of international observers about the trials indicate the success of Vyshinsky’s charade. A delegation of lawyers with the International Association of Lawyers issued a statement that read in part:

We consider the claim that the proceedings were summary and unlawful to be totally unfounded. The accused were given the opportunity of taking counsels .... We hereby categorically declare that the accused were sentenced quite lawfully.” 16

British lawyer Denis Pritt issued a separate statement:

What first struck me as a British lawyer was the defendants’ completely free and unconstrained conduct. They all looked well; they all stood up and spoke when they wanted to.... I personally am convinced that there is not the slightest reason to suppose the presence of any unlawfulness in the trial’s form or contents. 17

British historian Sir Bernard Pares said the guilt of the defendants was “proven beyond doubt.” 18

The International Human Rights League also declared the trials lawful. Their Moscow representative wrote, “We all look for a mistake only when the accused denies his guilt, when he shouts out his innocence to all and sundry. If Captain Dreyfus had pleaded guilty, there would have been no Dreyfus Case.” 19

The world’s intellectuals were as a whole deafeningly silent in their criticism of the trials and Stalin’s use of ““judicial” terror, mass arrests, and reprisals against the innocent.” 20 As a whole the foreigners attending the trials formed an apologist corps for the farcical judicial proceedings they witnessed.

One of Vyshinsky’s inside jokes on the world community he duped, was that during the trial of high party official Leonid Serebryakov, he instituted proceedings to have Serebryakov’s dacha (country house) and the money he paid for it transferred to Vyshinsky. 21 After all, Serebryakov wouldn’t need it since he was slated for execution after his day in court. Vyshinsky expanded on Serebryakov’s dacha and lived there comfortably for many years. It is reputed that Stalin visited him there on at least one occasion.

The trials were one of many domestic terror programs intended to cow Russians into subservience to Stalinist dictates. Observer Andre’ Gide noted the effectiveness of those tactics, “In my opinion, in no country today, not even in Hitler’s Germany, is the spirit more suppressed, more timid, more servile than in the Soviet Union.” 22

Vyshinsky’s performance during the “show trials” cemented him as one of Stalin’s favorites. It was also a special personal triumph because more than a decade earlier Vyshinsky laid the groundwork for the success of the trials. In 1922 Vyshinsky was elected Chairman at Moscow’s Collegium of Lawyers. 23 In that position he was instrumental in devising a legal system for Soviet Russia that “gave an illusion of democracy and a sham guarantee of defendants’ rights. To create and run this legal institution in such a way that it appeared all-important while remaining totally insubstantial was a highly complex and responsible task. Only the loyal and devoted could rise to it.” 24 The amoral Vyshinsky fit that job description perfectly.

In a larger sense Vyshinsky’s role in crafting the Soviet legal system in the early 1920s paved the way for Stalin, who “could never get his fill of blood,” to legally turn Russia into a human slaughterhouse. 25 Furthermore, Vyshinsky’s efforts were essential to establishing the legal framework necessary to wrongly convict the millions of people needed to populate the largest and most inhumane prison system ever created - the Gulag Archipelago - that was established after Stalin became ruler of the Soviet Union in 1929. 26 Vyshinsky was able to add to his legal legacy when he was appointed Deputy Chairman of the Soviet People’s Commissariat in 1939. 27 He was essentially in charge of the art world in the Soviet Union - including motion pictures, theater productions, and book publication. While in that position he wrote a book, The Theory of Legal Evidence in Soviet Law. Among his gems of legal wisdom is that “confession is a queen over all sorts of evidence,” which was reflected in his method of prosecuting the Moscow “show trials.” 28 Those trials clearly demonstrated that Vyshinsky and Stalin did not intend for a confession to reveal the truth of a person’s guilt, but to involve the confessor in the process of obscuring their innocence. 29 However his prime contributions were that “justice” is flexible depending on what is “in the interests of the people,” and his explanation that the “presumption of innocence” is an abstract liberal legal principle that has a “demobilizing, demagnetizing effect ... in the fight against crime.” 30 After a former colleague complained that the “presumption of guilt” caused a compression of procedural protections for an accused person, Vyshinsky wrote, ‘There is nothing to substantiate Professor Strogovich’s emphatic assertion that “in the Soviet criminal trial the burden of proof .. is never transferred to the defendant and his counsel.”’ 31 That was the final word in the controversy, given Vyshinsky’s position in the Soviet hierarchy.

Vyshinsky’s willingness to aid in providing Stalin with a legal cover for the murder of millions of innocent people was consistent with the lack of scruples, shameless opportunism, and adherence to a philosophy of situational ethics that he exhibited from the earliest days of his involvement in political affairs. There is evidence that prior to the Bolshevik Revolution he was an informant for the Czar and consorted with known undercover agent provocateurs - at the same time he was publicly criticizing Czarist policies. 32 Since Stalinist Russia was a gigantic snitch culture in which one’s survival and career advancement could depend on trading in the life of one or more person to save one’s own, Vyshinsky early training in duplicity served him well in climbing through the ranks until he became a member of Stalin’s hierarchy.

Vyshinsky and his fellow mass-murders of the innocent, Vyacheslav Molotov and Stalin (l to r) at the February 1945 Yalta Conference between Russia, Britain and the U.S. (The Molotov Cocktail is named after V. Molotov)

In 1940 Stalin rewarded Vyshinsky by making him a senior official in the Soviet foreign diplomat corps. He accompanied Stalin to the February 1945 Yalta conference, and he was present at Germany’s surrender in May 1945. Vyshinsky's international profile increased after the war when he gave several speeches at the United Nations, and he was the Soviet Union’s Minister for Foreign Affairs from 1949 to 1953.

After Stalin died in March 1953 there was a backlash in Russia against his decades long campaign of domestic terror. However Vyshinsky’s stature as a foreign diplomat protected him from being executed like other Stalinist sycophants. Instead he was demoted and assigned as the Soviet Union’s permanent delegate to the United Nations. On the morning of November 22, 1954, Vyshinsky was scheduled to address the United Nations. However while preparing in the Soviet’s five-story Park Avenue compound he was suddenly stricken by a strange ailment and died within minutes. One person shrieked: “They’ve killed him!” 33 There is no question Vyshinsky was an embarrassment to the new Soviet regime because he was directly linked to many of Stalin’s crimes. Whether he was murdered or died of natural causes doesn’t change that he died much more pleasantly than the innumerable innocent people he helped send to their death. Vyshinsky was given a state funeral for foreign public relations purposes, and he was buried by the Kremlin Wall in Moscow’s Red Square.

As one of Stalin’s dutiful leg-riders who shared his worship of the Machiavellian idea that any means of gaining and holding onto power is acceptable, Vyshinsky, like Stalin, can accurately be described as a career criminal against humanity. He systematically used the law as an instrument of oppression, and his primary contribution to legal thought was extolling the virtue of society embracing an accused person’s ‘presumption of guilt’. So it is somewhat ironic that 100 years to the day after Vyshinsky’s birth, the United Nation’s declared International Human Rights Day on December 10, 1983.

Stalin’s Prosecutor was written by a Russian lawyer who also worked as an investigative reporter in Russia. Although the English translation is very matter of fact and the book's subject matter is serious, it is a very readable page turner. The author, Vaksberg Arkadii, has helped ensure that future generations will have the opportunity glimpse into the life of an educated person who used his intellectual abilities to provide a veneer of respectability and legality to snuffing out the life of tens of millions of innocent people. Andrei Vyshinsky’s story remains relevant because there are politicians, prosecutors, police and judges in Western countries, including the United States, who approve of the “presumption of guilt” that was the foundation of Stalin’s system of legalized injustice. Those public representatives are only distinguished from Stalin’s prosecutor by the number of lives they have contributed to devastating.

Andrei Vyshinsky's career from 1935 to his 1954 death:

Procurator (Prosecutor) - General of the USSR, 1935-1939

Deputy Chairman of the Soviet People’s Commissariat, in 1939-1940

Commissar for Foreign Affairs, 1940-1949

Minister for Foreign Affairs, 1949-1953

Soviet Union’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, 1953-1954

End Notes

1The English translation was first published in the UK under the title, The Prosecutor and the Prey: Vyshinsky and the 1930s Moscow Show Trials, Vaksberg Arkadii, translated by Jan Butler, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, UK, 374 pgs, 1990.

2Death By Government, Rudolph J. Rummel, Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, N. J., 1994, Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, NJ, 496 pgs (HC), at p. 8. (Professor Rummel’s actual estimate is 42,672,000 Russian citizens were murdered under Stalin’s rule from 1929 to 1953. at p. 8) Stalin also bears responsibility for the death of many more people - perhaps also totaling in the millions - in Soviet controlled countries outside Russia that aren’t included in Professor Rummel’s estimate. Professor Rummel estimated that a total of 61,911,000 innocent non-combatants were murdered by The Soviet Gulag State in the 73 years from 1917 to 1990. Id.

(Professor Rummel coined a term to describe the systematic mass murder by a duly empowered government that he documents - democide. He defines it thusly: “Democide - The murder of any person or people by a government including genocide, politicide, and mass murder.” Id. at p. 31) See also, “Lethal Politics: Soviet Genocide and Mass Murder Since 1917,” R.J. Rummel, Transaction Books, 172 pgs., 1990.

3Id. at p. 8.

4See e.g., Id. at 80. (“The intentional starvation to death of about 5 million Ukrainian peasants in 1932-33.”); See also, Id. at 88, note 2.

5Koba The Dread, Martin Amis, Hyperion Books, 2002, at pp. 3-4.

642,672,000 (innocent people murdered under Stalin’s rule) / 24 (years of Stalin’s rule) = 1.778 million annually.

7As of December 31, 2003 there were 1,368,866 people in state and federal prisons in the U.S., See (last visited November 22, 2004)

8Atlanta’s 2000 U.S. census population was 416,474. See, Cities with 100,000 or More Population in 2000, at, (last visited November 22, 2004)

942,672,000 / 41 = 1,040,780. A 6”x9” book typically has 41 lines per page.

10Koba The Dread, supra at 276-277.

11The Soviet Constitution of 1936 is available on the Bucknell University website at:

12Vyshinsky was the Procurator-General of the USSR, which was a post roughly comparable to the Attorney General of the U.S. Around the time Vyshinsky was appointed the Soviet Union’s top prosecutor, the Soviet’s issued the “decree of April 7, 1935, which rendered children of twelve and over subject to “all measures of criminal punishment,” including death.” Koba The Dread, supra at 8.

13Article 58 was a catch-all statute that could be used to prosecute virtually anyone in Russia at any time. See e.g., Article 58 (RSFSR Penal Code), Wikipedia, at, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn e.g., was prosecuted, convicted and imprisoned under Article 58. See note 24.

14Stalin‘s Prosecutor, at 188.

15Id. at 189.

16Id. at 123.

17Id. at 123.

18Id. at 124.

19Id. at 124.

20Id. At 125. Among the Western intellectuals who functioned as stooges for Stalin were H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, and Sidney and Beatrice Webb. Koba The Dread, supra at 21n. Not surprisingly, Russian‘s were not fooled by the trials, and clearly understood their purpose of instilling fear in any possible opponents of Stalin and his policies. For example, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote, “I was keenly interested in politics from the age of ten; even as a callow adolescent I did not believe [Judge Andrei] Vyshinsky and was staggered by the fraudulence of the famous trials...” Koba The Dread, supra at 172.

21Id. At 87-92.

22Id. at 125.

23Id. At 35.

24Id. At 35.

25Id. At 73.

26Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s three volume work, The Gulag Archipelago, one of the great written works of the 20th century which won 1970s Nobel Prize for Literature, is the seminal work on the Soviet Gulag to which it is estimated 4.5 million innocent Russians wrongly convicted of phantom crimes died while laboring on public works projects. Millions of the 18 million people who populated the Soviet’s Gulag were convicted of allegedly violating Article 58 (see note 11). See, The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation I-II, Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, Harper & Row, N. Y., 1973, esp. Part 1: The Prison Industry, pp. 3-488. See also, Gulag: A History, Anne Applebaum, Doubleday, 2003 (contains estimate of 4.5 million deaths). A surprisingly good movie about the Soviet Gulag made in 1984 that starred David Keith and Malcolm McDowell, was aptly titled Gulag. The only two prison systems that are even within shouting distance of the inhumanity of the Soviet Gulag are the elaborate prison systems of Nazi Germany and Communist China. Although there are valid criticisms of the state and federal prison system’s in the U.S., their general conditions are like Shangri-la compared to the sub-human conditions that prevailed throughout the Soviet Gulag in which millions of people died from over-work, exposure, malnutrition and disease.

27Stalin‘s Prosecutor, at 177.

28The Free Dictionary.Com, at,,+Andrey+Yanuaryevich (last visited November 30, 2004).

29It can accurately be observed that there are a number of prosecutors in this country who subscribe to that same philosophy, as indicated by the manner in which they use the plea bargaining process to pressure a defendant to plead guilty in order to avoid the unconscionably harsh sentence that would be imposed if the person went to trial and lost.

30Id. at 191.

31Id. at 192.

32Id. At 18-20. Stalin was also duplicitous by serving as an undercover agent for the Czar‘s secret police prior to the Bolshevik Revolution. Koba The Dread, supra at 174.

33Id. At 315.

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